Beware of Pity is a riveting psychological portrait that is impossible to put down, a German mini-masterpiece that awaits a wider readership in English.
Stefan Zweig (1881-1942) was an Austrian writer of immense popularity in his time during the 1920s and 1930s. He wrote mainly novellas, short fiction and biographies. Beware of Pity was his only full length novel, and was published in 1938, a few years before his suicide in Brazil with his second wife Charlotte Altmann in 1942. Today Zweig is still widely read in Germany and France, but little known elsewhere, although Zweig is experiencing somewhat of resurgence with English readers, thanks to the efforts of several publishers.
The Life of Stefan Zweig
Zweig was born into a wealthy Austrian-Jewish family. He studied at the Universities of Berlin and Vienna, and his wealthy upbringing ensured he could devote himself to his literary pursuits. His Jewish identity didn’t much preoccupy his thoughts, as he was part of an educated class of Jewry who were fully assimilated into European society. Zweig would never experience overt anti-Semitism, until the political events that brought in Nazism.
By 1933, Hitler Youth were burning Zweig’s books. Composer Richard Strauss’s opera The Silent Woman was cancelled after two performances because Zweig had written the libretto. By the late 1930s he had divorced his first wife Friderike von Winternitz, remarried Lotte Altmann, and moved to London where he wrote Beware of Pity. In 1941 Zweig and Lotte emigrated to Brazil. Things seemed to be going well. Then on February 23rd, 1942, he and Lotte took an overdose of barbiturates and were found dead holding hands the next morning.
The Freudian and Shakespearean in Zweig's Beware of Pity
Stefan Zweig was friends with Freud, and it shows in Beware of Pity. Literary critic Harold Bloom has commentated that Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams was the famous psychoanalyt's Hamlet. Beware of Pity is extraordinary for its Shakepearnean inwardness of character. Zweig peels back layer after layer of human impulse and motivation to create psychologically complex portraits that examine life’s endless emotional traumas and dilemmas. Zweig’s literary skill in this regard is almost on a par with the great Russian novelist Dostoyevsky. Like Dostoyevsky, he is a relentless vivisector of the human soul. Every dark and shameful recess is exposed to the light.
The plot itself of Beware of Pity seems unlikely, even slight, as a springboard for the action of the novel. An Austro-Hungarian cavalry officer, Anton Hofmiller, is stationed at a small garrison town on the Hungarian frontier. One night he is invited to the home of Lajos von Kekesfalva, a rich industrialist. He experiences a sumptuous night of dance, music, women and great food that makes him intoxicated with life’s riches. When leaving this party he remembers that his host has a daughter, Edith. Still on a high, he asks the young woman to dance. In a shocking scene, with everyone looking on, the embarrassed girl tries to raise herself, and it becomes obvious that she is a cripple.
From this point on Hofmiller is sucked into the family life of the von Kekesfalvas, trying to make amends for his innocent social gaffe. What brings Hofmiller undone is his own pity for the crippled girl, which makes him lie not only to Edith about his feelings for her, but also to himself. In this way his sensitivity is his real downfall, and it will have dramatic consequences for Edith and her father, who start to put unrealistic hopes in Hofmiller. Shakespeare said conscience makes cowards of us all, and Hofmiller’s deep consciousness of the suffering of others leads him to cowardice. Hofmiller hates suffering, and the suffering of others makes him suffer, but his unrealistic attitude to suffering – that it must in some way be expunged – has the ironic effect of actually exacerbating the suffering of others, and his own.
Hofmiller in the end manages to blot out his bad memories and guilty conscience by the horrors he experiences as a soldier in World War One. Yet just when he thinks he has finally purged himself of guilt, his conscience come back to strike him down in a darkened theatre when he runs into a key figure from his past. Freud’s subconscious, that dreadful slough of guilt and anxiety, is there to haunt Hofmiller throughout life. Freedom from guilt and the cares of the world are an impossibility.
Beware of Pity is a riveting psychological portrait that is impossible to put down. It’s written in a lapidary prose that makes the book an intellectual and aesthetic pleasure to be savoured. This novel is a mini-masterpiece that awaits a wider readership in English. Lovers of fine literature, in the tradition of Dostoyevsky and Kafka, should not miss this German classic.
Beware of Pity, by Stefan Zweig. Published by NYRB. ISBN: 9781590172001 . Translated into English by Phyllis and Trevor Blewitt. $27.95